Women and Sovereignty

By Louise Olga Fradenburg | Go to book overview

MÁIRE HERBERT


Goddess and King: The Sacred Marriage in Early Ireland

In early Ireland women were not sovereigns, but sovereignty itself was conceived of as female. The mythic model of royal rule which the Celtic world shared with many other ancient cultures was that of the hieros gamos or sacred marriage. According to this model, successful and prosperous government of society was the outcome of union between female and male elements, between the goddess of the land and its sovereign. Sacred marriage imagery has been a constantly-recurring theme in Irish literature through the ages ( Breatnach 1953: 321-36). Eighteenth-century poets, for instance, still referred to the ruling of Ireland in terms such as "the bride wed in bliss . . . to the King" (Ó Tuama-Kinsella 1981: 189). Yet we must distinguish between the durability of the image as a literary topos and its survival as a constituent of royal ideology in Ireland. By the eighteenth century, the country was no longer ruled over by a native sovereign and the whole traditional institution of kingship had long since been attenuated. At this period, therefore, the image of the sacred marriage had poetic rather than political resonance. But did the mythic representation of female sovereignty retain active political force for as long as native institutions remained in Ireland?

It has been suggested that the theme of female sovereignty espoused to male sovereign "exercised an influence on recorded history as late as the eleventh century" ( Mac Cana quoted by Trindade 1986: 1 53)). 1 But what was the nature of this influence? Did the myth persist in Ireland unchanged in its lineaments and in its influence even as the practice of sovereignty changed and developed? The present enquiry will seek to address the question.

We must begin, however, by focusing on the mythic image itself. The sacred marriage originally seems to have been a myth of agriculturally-based communities, reflecting a belief that the earth, no longer a self-fecundating generatrix, required human

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